Oregon just became the 12th state to mandate Holocaust education in its schools — a list that doesn’t include Maryland, despite a lawmaker’s efforts to change that during the most recent General Assembly session.
Sen. Ben Kramer, a Montgomery County Democrat, introduced a bill that would have required the state education department to develop guidelines for middle and high schools to include a unit based on the Holocaust and other contemporary acts of genocide. He said the law is necessary to ensure that the next generation never forgets the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany, at a time when surveys show young people are increasingly unaware of the mass murder of 6 million Jews and millions of other groups.
“If we can’t learn from the history of the Holocaust, we are doomed to repeat what occurred in the Holocaust,” he said.
The bill had support from the Maryland PTA and the Anti-Defamation League, but never gained traction in Annapolis. Kramer said he will work to build support over the next six months before re-introducing the bill in the next session.
“I have every intention of raising the profile on this legislation for this coming session. There is absolutely no rational or reasonable excuse for not overwhelmingly passing this legislation,” he said. “It’s a shame we should have to be sitting in the back rows of the stadium waiting for other states to take the lead on such a logical step.”
Top state education officials opposed the bill, saying much of the proposed content is addressed already in schools and they believe “specific programming decisions continue to be best made by the [Maryland State Department of Education.]”
While the state education board believes Holocaust education is vital, codifying into law certain units would “subject many important instructional decisions to the political process,” wrote Justin Hartings, president of the Maryland State Board of Education, to the bill sponsors.
Oregon’s Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, signed her state’s version of the bill this week, saying on Twitter that “now more than ever we must empower our children with knowledge so together we can stomp out the growing hate in our country.”
A recent survey found more than one in five millennials hadn’t heard of, or are not sure if they’ve heard of, the Holocaust.
Oregon joins 11 other states with explicit laws requiring Holocaust education in schools, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
"There is absolutely no rational or reasonable excuse for not overwhelmingly passing this legislation.”— Sen. Ben Kramer
The State Department of Education found that “much of the proposed content required by the bill is currently addressed or alluded to” in social studies or history classes, according to the bill’s fiscal and policy note.
In high school, students studying modern world history are supposed to be taught “the global scope and human cost of World War II by analyzing the systematic and state-sponsored atrocities perpetrated by governments in Europe and Asia during World War II.” In U.S. history classes, students are expected to study the causes of World War II and America’s involvement in it.
"One of the objectives in that unit is for students to investigate the response of the United States government to the discovery of the Holocaust and immigration policies with respect to refugees," the note states.
These standards don’t go far enough, Kramer said, and a specific unit on the Holocaust must be mandated by the state. Not only must students learn the facts of the Holocaust, his draft law argues, but they also must learn the ramifications of prejudice, racism and stereotyping.
“Everyone at one time assumed the Holocaust would loom so large in our history that it would never be forgotten, yet studies show that particularly among millennials, they don’t know what the Holocaust is,” he said.
The way the Holocaust is taught can vary across systems.
Anne Arundel schools spokesman Bob Mosier said it is studied multiple times throughout a students’ career: In seventh grade, students learn about it through World War II studies; in ninth grade, they learn about it from the U.S. perspective as part of an American history course; in 11th grade, they investigate the Holocaust’s causes and impacts. There are also elective options with a focus on Holocaust education.
“Students explore the Holocaust through secondary sources, primary sources, video collections, newspaper articles, and in some cases, field trips,” Mosier wrote in an email. “Last year students from Anne Arundel County Public Schools visited the Jewish Museum of Baltimore and US Holocaust Museum in Washington DC.”
In Baltimore County, however, students are first taught about the Holocaust in their sophomore year social studies class. Curriculum in the earlier grades is more focused on the ancient world, said Dani Biancolli, the district’s coordinator for secondary social studies.
“We talk about the roots of this and how the climate developed that allowed the Holocaust to happen,” she said of the 10th-grade course.
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Then in their junior years, students are taught about the Holocaust from a U.S. perspective. And as upperclassmen, they can choose to enroll in an elective course focused entirely on the genocide called, “Facing History and Ourselves.”
In Harford County, social studies supervisor George Toepfer says, the district goes beyond state mandates and first brings up the Holocaust in sixth grade. In English classes, students read Anne Frank’s diary and “Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” books about the genocide.
The county is working to revise its fifth-grade program to include more Holocaust content.
A Baltimore Sun investigation found hate crimes are on the rise in Maryland. State law enforcement agencies received 398 reports of hate or bias in 2017, the investigation revealed, with Jews identified as targets in a fifth of reports.
Several incidents involved young students and schools: In Montgomery County, a 13-year-old Jewish girl received several anti-Semitic texts. In Anne Arundel County, students wrote “kill all the Jews f— — Anne Frank" on paper plates and displayed them on social media. In Harford County, several swastikas were drawn on the walls in a boys’ bathroom.
And in Howard County, four former Glenelg High School students were convicted on hate crime charges after spray-painting more than 50 racist, homophobic and anti-semitic symbols across their campus.
The spike in hate crimes, Kramer said, “clearly demonstrates a lack of tolerance from individuals who see those who are different from them and can’t accept those differences.”